Subway might be getting more airtime this week than Ryan Seacrest. The restaurant chain just pulled off an impressive triple with comically overt product placements on three successive days.
In the process, its branded integration strategists showed remarkable nimbleness by using multiple genres to plug the subs, weaving them into a sportscast (Sunday), a drama (Monday) and a reality show (Tuesday).
If the aim of product integration is to be seamless and artfully slide a promotion into the flow of a program, Subway flunked mightily. Pitches for the subs felt about as natural as the pungent smell that emanates from a Subway location, the one that reaches olfactory nerves a block away.
Of course, Subway has the most locations of any fast-food chain in the world. So, it knows what it’s doing and maybe subtlety just isn’t its thing.
It may have anticipated the toasting it is getting this week for its TV conspicuousness. Subway managed to command two minutes of CBS’s NFL post-game show; dominate a scene within the network’s “Hawaii Five-O”; and become a prize on NBC’s “The Biggest Loser.”
Subway’s marketing budget apparently keeps growing faster than the national debt, one $5 footlong at a time. And CBS and NBC seem more than happy to eat it up, even as some in the media and viewers assail them for selling their very soul.
How dare the critics rise up! They are being short-sighted.
They may have a point that product placement can tamper with the integrity of a show, forcing producers and writers into gymnastics to unnaturally insert a brand. And, there may be something to suggestions that since commercialism has so overtaken society, networks should at least keep promotions out of the content itself – there are so many commercials anyway.
But drop the nonsense. Product placements have become so ludicrous, so wildly and unbelievably obvious, so insulting to a viewer’s intelligence that anyone lobbying to stop them might end up depriving viewers of abundant laughter. Humor is in too short supply today to run this risk.
Do not write to the FCC. Dear media: stop this holier-than-thou criticism. Nation: cut out the negative tweeting.
Consider the deprivation you might cause Amy of Texas, who tweeted Wednesday: “The Subway commercials embedded in TV shows are hilarious.”
Subway’s work this week is actually nothing new. The tactics used on both the CBS NFL coverage and “The Biggest Loser” have been done before. And while “Hawaii Five-O,” may be new, Subway has long been involved with NBC drama “Chuck.”
Still, this week’s activity seems to have caused more of a frisson, largely because of suggestions that CBS gave Subway a bit too much influence. Also, a New York Times writer said with "Hawaii Five-O," CBS authored the most horrendous product placement that he had ever encountered.
On "The Biggest Loser," a trainer told contestants how Subway is such a smart and healthy choice. It wasn't so funny, only because it was pretty standard fare for reality series and the NBC show in particular.
Subway’s appearance on CBS's football coverage was, however, a wonderful source of amusement. The restaurant chain’s spokesman Jared stood before a colorful display, with a pair of turkey subs, on set of the CBS NFL post-game show (sponsored by Subway).
It didn’t stop with a quick close-up and a few words from Jared. A full-on discussion about the sandwiches broke out, where the eminent James Brown seemed to believe plugging Subway was a fresh alternative to discussing Tom Brady’s performance.
Brown tossed it to Jared, who mentioned the two new subs (a BLT and a melt) both had only seven grams of fat.
An incredulous Brown: “Only seven grams of fat?”
“It tastes great,” Jared said.
Then, as he usually does, Brown turned to the “NFL Today” panel for some analysis. Detroit Lions defenseman Ndamukong Suh was a guest. After Brown noted he is a Subway “famous fan,” Suh spoke about his favorite sandwich.
It didn't stop there. Regular analyst Bill Cowher was drawn in, expressing enthusiasm that the new melt was out.
The whole scene caused controversy, particularly Suh’s role. Bob Wolfey of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel wondered if Suh was given his spot Sunday because of his role as a Subway endorser.
Wolfey spoke with CBS, which said Suh was brought in because he could offer valuable perspective. But, the writer had his doubts and suggested the network was offering up a non-denial denial.
At one point while parsing through the CBS quotes, Wolfey asked “Huh?”
On Monday’s “Hawaii Five-O,” the scene that provoked the New York Times had one character asking another who was downing subs: “So, you’re eating these to lose weight?”
“It worked for Jared and that boy was large," came the response. "But, the best thing about it, they make it anyway you want it.”
A plug for the sweet onion, chicken teriyaki with jalapeno and banana peppers followed.
The NYT’s Mike Hale called it “the most jarring, disruptive and insulting example” of brand integration he’d seen. Later, he asked readers: “Have you seen worse? Does this sort of thing drive you crazy, or do you consider it just revenge for the fact you’ve been fast-forwarding through commercials on your (DVR) for the last five years?”
Please don’t answer that, unless the response is keep th stuff coming. The comedy must continue.